Published in November 14, 1851, the novel employs an epic, encyclopedic form; it functions on many levels and has been variously interpreted in succeeding years. The white whale itself, for example, has been read as symbolically representative of good and evil, as has Ahab. Not just an allegory, Moby-Dick also contains a wealth of concrete detail on 19th century whaling and many other subjects. The novel was a commercial failure upon its initial publication, but has since cemented its author's reputation in the first rank of American writers.
The novel was published in an expurgated version entitled The Whale in London one month before appearing in the United States.
The plot was inspired in part by the November 20, 1820 sinking of the Essex (a whaling ship from Nantucket, Massachusetts). The ship went down 2,000 miles from the western coast of South America after it was attacked by an 80-ton Sperm Whale.